The Male Animal
By SRIDHAR PAPPU
Over avocado toast and coffee at Cafe Cluny in the West Village, Michael Bailey held up his iPhone to show an image of himself taken 15 years ago, back when he was a fit model for a major clothing line. This was the photo he recently posted on his Facebook wall on his 52nd birthday.
“I named that photo ‘Target,’” said Mr. Bailey, an interior designer for kitchens. “Because it’s still my target. I know I will never have that skin again, and I know that I’ll never be as cut and ripped as I was in that photo. But it’s a nice goal to have. A nice visual to work toward.”
Mr. Bailey is dealing with something that many men deal with — not obesity, exactly, but being five to 15 pounds heavier than he would like to be. In other words, he has the slightly doughy look known as “dad bod.” Although the term is not necessarily meant as an insult, Mr. Bailey would like to leave that look behind.
What frustrates Mr. Bailey, like others with this affliction, is that he believes he is so close to getting his body to where he wants it to be. And yet he keeps falling short.
In Mr. Bailey’s case, the need to drop from his current weight, 190 pounds, to his ideal weight, 178, has real consequences. As someone with a prediabetic condition, he knows the risk of not losing the weight. And although he survived a bout with colon cancer, diagnosed in 2015, those extra pounds have proved a tough foe indeed.
Mr. Bailey said his perhaps quixotic quest may be complicated by the fact that he is gay. Half the photos he showed me from the social media accounts he follows featured friends who look trim, if not cut. When Mr. Bailey is around them, he knows he is being judged, just as he once judged other people.
“Having a crazy-hot body is so important in gay culture,” he said. “You go on Facebook, especially in the summer, and everyone is just posting shirtless photos. It’s a little intimidating.
“Going to a gay beach is crazy intimidating,” he continued. “It’s always in my face. One of the best things in the world for a gay man is to go to a straight beach. I would much rather stay at a gay beach, because I like what I am looking at, but to be at a nongay beach, I feel like the hottest dude on the planet.”
Speaking from almost 1,200 miles away, in Minnesota, Casey Peterson, 34, said he had never felt like the hottest man on the planet. Not even close. As an athlete in high school, he played football, basketball and baseball, and even did his turn at wrestling. But still he was stocky. When he applied for the Peace Corps after college, he was initially turned away because of his weight. His doctor had to write a letter saying he was in fine shape.
“I would have to tell myself, ‘I’m not fat,’” Mr. Peterson said of his youthful build. “But I would ask myself: ‘Why am I not more defined? Why do I just sort of look thick?’”
He still has those questions, although he bikes 12 miles to and from his home in St. Paul to Minneapolis, where he works as a social strategist at an advertising firm. He also runs four to six miles at least three times a week and puts himself through the grueling Insanity workout as often as he can. And while he enjoys the internal rewards, the external ones that people seek — whether they will admit it or not — still elude him.
“I can’t find pants,” said Mr. Peterson, who, at 5 feet 11 inches and 200 pounds, would like to weigh 190. “My natural waist is a 31, but I have to buy pants that actually fit over my butt and my thighs. So then I am always the guy in baggy pants.”
When Jamyn Edis, 41, was coming up as a management consultant in London, he watched his older colleagues’ stomachs loom large over their Savile Row suits as they smoked cigars in their offices. He told himself he would never be one of those men — and for the most part, he hasn’t been. He has competed in three marathons and one triathlon. But that led to foot and shoulder surgeries and even a spinal fusion procedure. And then there’s the weight.
At 6-2 and 195 pounds, Mr. Edis, the chief executive and a founder of the smart-car start-up Dash, cuts an impressive figure to other people. But when he takes off his black V-neck T-shirt, he can see the extra pounds (he would like to be down to 185). And he is not fine with it.
“The question is, what am I going to do about it?” Mr. Edis said over lunch at Market Table on Carmine Street.
As with others, Mr. Edis, who said he weighed himself at most four times a year, may not have much say in the outcome. The extreme exercise he endured in his 20s and 30s has limited how far he can physically push himself these days. In 2015, his doctor told him to stop running.
“I think this is where the irritation has less to do with 10 to 15 pounds and more to do with knowing I am losing control of my body,” Mr. Edis said, “through age, not control of choices that I can make anymore.”
Kirk Read, a 58-year-old professor of French and Francophone studies at Bates College in Lewiston, Me., summed up how he felt about being five pounds away from his ideal weight with one word: failure.
“In every other aspect of my life, I know what to do,” Dr. Read said. “I follow my little plan. I make a list. I check them off. People are happy. And I move forward. This is one where it’s just me and my will. And it’s embarrassing to me that, in this aspect of my life, I don’t have control.”
Much of that has to do with what he described as a “chubby” boyhood. Dr. Read, who weighs 205 pounds, recoils at the memories of shirts-and-skins football games.
He said that in his teenage years, shopping for jeans was traumatizing. After he tried several options with no luck, his mother decided the best solution was to buy some denim and make a pair for him herself. When another boy at school realized that his jeans were homemade, Dr. Read was embarrassed.
In time, he stretched out to more than six feet. But his work often takes him to Paris, that city of fashion and cruelty.
“I’ve actually had a French saleswoman say, ‘You are enormous,’” he said. “And you say: ‘Thank you very much. Are you trying to shun me out of the store?’ Over there, I’m just surrounded by people who make me feel like I don’t want to be the enormous guy walking into the store.”
Dr. Read said he sees the role played by his own vanity in all this. Unlike many academics, he likes to dress up. And he feels better when he looks thinner and healthier.
Standing on the scale recently, he said he asked himself: “What would it be like to weigh 200 pounds, or even 199? How would it feel?”
“I know men in my life who stride through the world with confidence, even if they have a little paunch,” he said. “You can tell they’re not holding in their gut, which I do most of the time. That’s a natural pose for me.
“I assume they feel attractive and sexy,” he continued. “They exude self-confidence. That’s a place I would love to get to. Because I’m not fat. I’m corpulent. In some ways, that feels worse.”